Back in Rome after a couple of weeks in the USA, everything feels smaller here. Even street-art colours were more exhuberant there. Here we’re cramped for space, streets are narrower, there’s less green and above all less sky. In the USA, the sky looked wider, high and vast, and swaths of clouds all shapes and sizes moved along all day as if on a stage.
Change in motion. At least in Illinois and Wisconsin in this late summer season.
Supermarkets are huge there. Here we have mainly foreign-owned ones that can get pretty big, but never as daunting. I was mesmerized by the pumpkin sea of orange in the entrance to the nearest supermarket, found my favourite cereal after half an hour, but then had to go back three days running before finding the peanut butter section. Don’t laugh: we all relate to comfort food from our childhood. After all, food is part of what defines the US, and not as its detractors would have it, only its junk-food.
The variety of food, basic ingredients, staples, drinks and vegetables and fruit, from fresh produce and meat to canned, pre-cooked, cooked hot and frozen, is staggering and borderline immoral when you think of things like hunger in the world? But what’s wonderful is how multi-cultural it is everywhere, you can find whatever you crave under the sun, and eat it at whatever time you choose. It’s so different here in Italy, where although Chinese and Japanese have made inroads, restaurant fare is almost always traditional Italian. Lunch and dinner times are rigidly defined, and for most Italians, meals still revolve around the concept of primo e secondo – throw in antipasto on a weekend – and you just don’t mix basic flavours either. Snailpace, it’s starting to evolve, but don’t ever let anyone catch you having pasta as a side dish for your meat or fish.,,
I had my first experience of life in the suburbs in the USA. You’ve probably watched dozens of movies with action set along really large roads flanked by low or two-level houses with multiple garage doors and huge gardens? Well, they won’t quite prepare you for the actual feeling of ongoing space, well-manicured lawns and ponds alternating with sprawls of natural woods, and silence as the backdrop to the rhythmed purr of passing cars.
I thought I’d see lots of joggers, but I turned out to be one of the only people getting around on foot. Funny because the nearby village gym had rows of cars parked in front, and you could see people working out hard on treadmills through the windows.
Driving short and long distance is a way of life there. Here petrol is expensive.
My major gripe was with air-conditioning. It’s kept at insanely low temperatures there, and I nearly caught my death of a cold with all that Artic air blowing around. Everywhere. To hear them, the locals have incredibly low tolerance for even pleasent balmy weather. On one hand they’re wasting energy and accelerating the onset of climate warming, on the other they’ll be extraordinarily unfit to cope with hot climes when our whole post-industrial system finally does collapse…
I was taken to places I’d never considered before. On the drive up to Wisconsin, you pass through lovely low-hill country, with lakes big and small, and occasional orchards that sell their produce directly. Though some places were touted as holiday locations, they weren’t as crowded as they get here in Italy: again, more space to spread people over.
We overnighted in Waukesha, a relatively sedate mid-sized town in Wisconsin with apparent quality of life, even though it wasn’t off the grid with its waves of Pokemon-playing children and adults running around.
I finally figured why there were so many Harley-Davidsons -they’re made in neighbouring Milwaukee that also hosts their iconic historic museum. An early evening curbside dinner in dowtown Waukesha across from vrooming Harleys and their laid-back owners was very much my idea of the US. Here In Rome, mopeds and motorcycles aren’t for leisure: aggressive riders are in attack mode as they swarm through our often lethal traffic wars.
Next day, we visited Milwaukee. I knew they made beer there – divine! But I didn’t know it also has its world-class Milwaukee Art Museum designed by Santiago Calatrava. The Spanish architect is famous for his almost impossibly airy designs of bridges and railway stations, and this building, with its opening and closing wings is a thing of beauty.
Some of his projects have been developed in Italy too, bridges in Venice and Emilia Romagna, a train station too, and a scandal-ridden sports center in Rome has been on hold for over a decade. None of these are as engineeringly ambitious as the stunning Milwaukee museum that literally tries to soar into the sky twice a day.
Have you ever had unexpected impressions visiting places that weren’t really on your bucket-list?
Photos: flower street art, sky, pumpkin stall, suburban house, apple orchard, downtown at night ©14thcountry.com; Milwaukee Art Museum: Onasil – Bill Badzo;